Why Apologies Matter and How to Make Them Meaningful

Show me a leader who can't offer a decent apology, and I'll show you a leader who will ultimately have no followers. And to quote my mother's favorite adage, "To be a leader, you must attract followers. Otherwise, you're just taking a walk."

The true test of any apology is whether it restores trust and credibility. Apologies that are insincere, incomplete, poorly delivered, and not backed up with a change in behavior -- or better yet, a change of heart -- can damage trust and credibility far more than no apology at all.

In the corporate world, where achieving organizational goals hinges on trust and teamwork, effective apologies are a necessity, not a luxury. The higher your position, the more important this issue becomes. Why? Because you're standing in the spotlight, where your imperfections are much more visible, and where much more is expected of you.

5 Tips for Offering an Effective Apology

1. When you mess up, fess up. The ideal time to do this is before you have to. Let your respect for the other person(s) come through in ways that can be felt. We do this by going to offended parties directly and owning up to our actions, without undue self-justification. Let your sincerity come through in your timing, your words, your voice, your body language and facial cues.

2. Acknowledge your impact, not just your intent. Few of us go around intentionally hurting others. But that doesn't necessarily diminish our impact. If I step on your toe, even though I didn't mean to, it still hurts your foot. If I repeatedly make the same offhand remark, it might erode your trust in me, even though I meant no harm. We must be ready to acknowledge how our words and actions affect those around us -- and change when necessary to restore the relationship.

3. Let the offended party know how things will be different, going forward. Again, this is how we build the relationship and our own character. Without this step, we've probably made the situation worse. To borrow a line from Woody Allen, "The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won't get much sleep." Better to clear the air and set the other person's mind at ease.

4. Stay focused on your goal: namely, to work through the issue at hand in a way that restores trust and respect. This is not the time to turn the tables or bring up extraneous issues.

5. Never think that saying, "I'm sorry" makes you weak. On the contrary, apologizing effectively takes tremendous strength, not to mention social grace. Yet if we can rise to the occasion, our apologies will stand the best possible chance of being well received. By owning up to our human frailty, and making it our job to overcome it, we will deepen trust across the organization, one relationship at a time. The greatest relationship to be strengthened will be our relationship with ourselves.

But let us also be realistic: Not every culture or relationship welcomes such integrity. This is where discernment comes in. Will you lead by example to change the culture, or move to a culture where honesty and integrity are already in place? Speaking from personal history, I don't recommend staying stuck between the two.